THE USE OF starvation as a political weapon is a tragic and familiar aspect of wars in many lands, but the practice seems to have been taken to an especially terrible new place in Ethiopia. Surprisingly, the villain is not the Marxist government. That government has not shrunk from using starvation tactics to put down Eritrea's independence movement, but, in this cycle, it has solicited international relief to soften the famine to which its policies have significantly contributed, and it does tend to allow the trucks to roll through. Eritrean rebels themselves are accepting responsibility for an attack that destroyed 23 big trucks carrying more than 400 tons of emergency food supplies to a rebel-held area in neighboring Tigray.

It appears that clearly marked United Nations, Catholic Relief Services and other trucks were ambushed and burned on an Eritrean road last Friday. Some drivers were detained and at least one was killed. The Eritrean People's Liberation Front, saying it had attacked the convoy, claimed arms and ammunition were in some of the trucks. It is at least conceivable that a local commander had seen government forces in the area and suspected the convoy might be hostile -- although this would not explain the subsequent burning of trucks and harassment of drivers. The relief agencies, hoping to return to the previously prevailing pattern of local understandings, are taking the view that the incident is an isolated one. They shudder to imagine the consequences if it is not.

It is one of the distortions of the West's view of Eritrea that it is commonly known now as an international basket case. But the time is long overdue to see its agony as essentially political in origin. The United Nations federated this former Italian colony into Haile Selassie's Ethiopia in 1952. He absorbed it by force in 1962, and the Eritreans have been struggling for independence ever since -- first against the American-oriented Emperor Selassie and now against the Soviet-oriented Mengistu Haile Mariam. Struggling, that is, no longer against European colonialism, which everyone decries, but against African colonialism, which is usually ignored. Relief crises of one sort or another are likely to recur with terrible regularity in Eritrea so long as the political sources are not addressed.